Is Nicholas Cage A Genius Or Maniac?

This is a 3-part discussion of Nicolas Cage as an actor in preparation for The Unbelievable Weight of Massive Talent because prior to now, I didn’t really know much about Cage and hadn’t gone out of my way to see his films. The films I watched aren’t some premeditated, handpicked, carefully curated auteur selection. I turned on Con Air because it was an obvious choice, Outcast because I was drunk and saw that Hayden Christensen was in it, and Leaving Las Vegas because the poster has generous Elisabeth Shue cleavage. What began as a stumble through Cage’s long filmography ended up being a really, really good perspective on his ability as an actor.

Con Air – The Action Star

Put the rabbit back

Con Air is a very well known action-thriller, and is a 90’s Hollywood classic. Nicholas Cage plays Cameron Poe, an inmate on a plane transporting prisoners that is hijacked. Cage, a good man, has to survive some pretty heinous criminals and find a way back to his wife and daughter. 

The concept is pretty innovative, and the all-star cast does a great job. The action is pretty decent for a movie from 1997, even though it’s a little illogical and has to get a little convoluted to set up the big final action sequence. It’s like when you take all your hot wheels, line them up, and have your army men shoot at each other. 

Nicholas Cage has got a wild, long mess of hair, a southern drawl that comes and goes, and he’s got some sexy, sweaty shoulders. This is Cage being forced to play the role of a generic Hollywood man: Badass, protects women, smart mouthed and burly. The film doesn’t need him to do much else other than stand in there and pose. It’s not so much an acting role as it is a performance. In fact, his co-stars John Malkovich, John Cusack and Steve Buscemi are far, far more interesting, and deliver far, far more memorable performances. Also, that’s a lot of weird last names in a row. 

Outcast – The Veteran

To save our brain cells, we must drink

China has a weird, slightly racist fascination with white people. They like casting white action stars who are just past their primes in action movies in films like The Meg, starring Jason Statham, The Great Wall with Matt Damon, and to a certain degree, Transformers: The Last Knight with Mark Shitburger (i hate him). These films aren’t really made for a western audience, and by our standards of character growth or narrative structure, the films are not very good. Additionally, the actors don’t really need to do a good job; they’re just there for the paycheck. Statham likely can’t do any better, and Mark Wahlberg likely can’t do any worse.

The film Outcast is one of these by-China-for-China films, starring white action stars just past their primes. Christensen plays the protagonist, a jaded knight of the crusades. He reluctantly agrees to transport a young prince and princess as they’re hunted by their evil brother, who wants to steal the throne. The movie isn’t very good. There are serious problems in editing likely due to the extremely poor direction of the film. The story is generic, the acting is unbelievably bad, and the action is cut to shreds to hide the fact that it’s terribly choreographed. 

Cage plays Christensen’s old medieval mentor, who has also moved to China. He has very long, matted hair, an eye injury that’s too goofy to be believable, and a ridiculous, ridiculous accent that I cannot describe in words and will simply have to link a video for you.

(also, Cage dual wields snakes)

This performance by Cage is absolutely, barbarically atrocious. The only time I’d see worse acting is if a high schooler was cast as Jaffar in a production of Aladdin, but he’s got a crush on the drama teacher so he blows past what’s asked of him in order to really show Ms. Philips that he’s got what it takes and he daydreams about whisking her off to Broadway and settling down with her after he makes it big. 

Look, I love Hayden Christensen as much as a lukewarm Star Wars fan can. I’ve seen the Mr. Plinkett videos and I get why even a veteran actor would have a hard time with that godawful script (see: Natalie Portman, Samuel L. Jackson, Ewan McGregor, Liam Neeson). But when you’re in a movie with the ‘No, it’s because I’m so in love with you!’ guy, and a child actor, and then you’re the worst actor on screen? There’s a level of apathy that transcends simply ‘phoning it in’. This is peak Veteran Nick Cage. The guy who can do better, has done better and will do better, but simply won’t do better. And you can’t really blame him.

The target audience of that film is not going to enjoy the movie any more or any less if Cage had given us the best, most convincing portrayal of a medieval knight who has forsaken God and moved to China to live out of a cave and settle down with an ambiguously-aged Asian lady. The man gets little to no depth in the film. Further, even if he had given us an average-great performance, it’s not like it was seriously going to impact his running for any acting awards in any country or competition. Hell, his performance doesn’t even impact future employment possibilities in China. It really only boils down to whether or not the audience likes the Cage brand, not his singular appearance in a movie where his sole selling point is the color of his skin.

I’m not wrong about this

All I’m saying is, there’s no reason for Cage to have given this movie any real effort, and that’s ok, in my opinion. He simply didn’t have to do anything special. In fact, I honestly think that he did a very similar job in Con Air. Except in Con Air, he was the lead man and he couldn’t phone it in that badly- additionally he was still in the prime of his career. One flop, one on-set tantrum and he jeopardizes future prospects, y’know? 

Given these examples, you’re now scratching your noggin, thinking, ‘Ok, so is Cage good or not?’ To that end, I give you Leaving Las Vegas, a film so riveting, so powerful, so moving, that it has instantly become one of my top 10 favorite movies of all time. 

Leaving Las Vegas – The Cage

Ok so to begin, I really, really hate Vegas. I hate the overindulgence, the opulence, the waste, the debauchery, the gambling, the marketing, the cigarettes, the waterparks in a desert. I hate it all. Most people associate Vegas with sinning and sins like sex, alcohol and gambling. What we all fail to recognize, however, is that there are a fair number of people who actually really, really like that kind of thing. Some people, if they have the means, are actually really invested in this lifestyle. What makes us, the ever-sympathetic and accepting good people of mother Gaia, feel that we can sneer and judge these people for their lives? What makes our decision a better decision?

We all die at the end of all things, so why not fill our short spans with as much glitter, hedonism and happiness as we can? Why not accept people in our lives who help us shrug off loneliness? Why not love the ones who choose to welcome us unconditionally, and never judge us for the choices we make? Wouldn’t it be really nice to live a short life full of good people and good food and good liquor instead of a long life full of shitty people and salads and sobriety? Who the fuck are we to judge that any of this is wrong?

Our story begins with tragedy, as the film is based on a book, published by an author who committed suicide shortly after the film rights were sold. Director Mike Figgis, a visionary and experimental film director, chose to shoot this film with a very low (for Hollywood) budget, and decided to forgo the usual permits and permissions while running around Vegas. He chose to let the background individuals be regular schmucks instead of a crowd of extras. He followed our actors with an atypical, small, Super 16 mm camera. He picked up Elizabeth Shue, five years after her blockbuster family-friendly films Back to the Future, and Nicholas Cage, a year before The Rock, and two years before both Con Air and Face/Off

I have absolutely fallen in love with this movie. The film follows Ben Sanderson (Cage), a severely alcoholic LA man who drives to Vegas to drink himself to death. He’s a desperate, self-aware, end-of-his-tether individual, who realizes that he will not be able to repair the damage he’s caused. Desperate for companionship, he finds Sera (Shue), a prostitute who’s motto is ‘Things are finally looking up!’

Nearly immediately, the two find a comfortable acceptance in one another. Sera, an abused woman, finds solace and peace in knowing immediately the kind of hurt that Ben can cause, leaving nothing unknown. She finds this level of abuse acceptable, and falls in love, asking him to move in with her within days. It’s beautiful and tragic, the way that she finds his alcoholism a more peaceful way of life than the pimps who cut her or the johns who beat and rape her. On the flipside, Ben asks her not to get him to stop drinking, but also (sort of) accepts her way of making money. 

Then, their love blossoms. She buys him a flask, a pure, spot-on demonstration of her love and acceptance for Ben and his way of life. Sera recognizes the alcohol as part of his identity. Ben doesn’t really show her many demonstrations of acceptance of her profession, and the film shifts to being focused on Sera, and her life, rather than Ben and his. 

There’s a reason why this scene is iconic

This insanely heartfelt, warm and welcoming film is grounded in the powerhouse performances by Cage and Shue. Cage uses his ability to transform into an otherworldly individual and gives us a balanced, believable and nuanced depiction of a human body that has completely succumbed to its addiction to poison. Cage is able to allow us glimmers of the man inside this husk, of a clever, charming and witty writer who this body used to be. Cage plays a man who has accepted his doom, and rams head first into it, knowing that this is the least painful way of going. Instead of dragging things out and causing more damage, he goes to the one place he fits in: Las Vegas.

I can’t say enough good things about Cage and the film itself, but holy hell does this mean one thing. Nicholas Cage can act. When he’s given a script and meaningful purpose, he can cause some real fucking damage with his bravado. He’s an intelligent enough guy to know that a polished, designed Disney product like National Treasure is going to be fine, and that a movie named Drive Angry has an audience that couldn’t care less how accurate his persona is on screen. He’s good enough to pick and choose when to let himself demonstrate his prowess in films like Pig. Yeah, he’s technically just a product of the Copolla film family, but he’s also a very capable actor in his own right, when he wants to be.

The Unbelievable Cage of Massive Action Veterans

There’s a lot to be said about the journey of successful action stars, and what defines success in Hollywood and what effect nepotism has on rising and falling artists, but I’m not wasting time talking about all that.

 I’d much rather round things off with a short discussion about Cage, and how he’s proven to be a very mature, capable and underappreciated actor. 

I’d much, much rather simply tell you that Cage is a fun guy to watch, and it’s unfortunate that he’s got a bad rap. He uses this to advantage in The Unbelievable Weight of Massive Talent, and we get an alternate-universe look at what sort of life Cage lives and how he sees himself and his fans. It’s a funny movie, but lacks depth or anything meaningful in its purpose. Cage deserves better. We deserve better. I DESERVE BETTER. I’VE SEEN THE ANSWERS AND THEY ARE IN CAGE. WE ARE IN CAGE, OK? aW YEAH!

Con Air5/10
Leaving Las Vegas9/10

Edit: I was wrong

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